The Use of Language

The world was getting slow for him, and so Hadi Samarkar decided to learn a new language. He'd learned that it was the thing. There was alcohol and women and gambling, but when he got like this, a new language was the thing.

It was when everybody seemed to be moving around lumberingly. There was no grace or style or nuance to their movements. He knew it wasn't the truth—there was grace and style and nuance there, because people were infinite, but he was not seeing it because he was not seeing them in a way that was new.

When he learned a language, he remembered a people. The people who had lived and died in that tongue. They had done everything human beings could do in it. Oh, he would think, that's right. The story of the people would come back to him, and in the process the story of himself would come back too.

It had something to do with learning everything from scratch. You remembered what a table was when you learned the word for table. It was a hell of a thing. You took a little pride in human beings for coming up with the table. It was like being a kid, but he tried not to think about that directly because it would ruin it. He was a fifty-five-year-old man learning a language, that's all.

He went to the Hudson Park branch of the New York Public Library and sat down with some books at a table. He always started with books. It was how he'd learned French, Spanish, Italian, and German. He'd learned Farsi, English, Turkish, and Arabic back in Iran.

The books were teaching Hungarian. He did not know the first thing about Hungary. He liked it that way. He would let the language tell him about the people.

The third evening there, the librarian saw him and wondered why this man was coming in to learn Hungarian. Her head filled up with stories explaining it. She settled on a love story. There was a Hungarian woman he missed. He looked like he could be a man who missed somebody. She began to think of it each time she saw him.

One night an old man sat across from Hadi and saw what he was reading.

"You are learning my language," the old man said.

"You are Hungarian?"

"Yes."

They both smiled. There was some kind of recognition for both of them. Here was the old man this language was trying to describe, Hadi thought. It fit. The old man spoke the language and the language spoke the old man. Hadi felt very glad that he had been learning it.

The librarian saw them and walked over to hear what they were saying. Both of the men thought she was walking over to hush them, and they went back to reading. The librarian wished that the people who came to the library could know that she was more than just a librarian.

When she went to the other side of the room, the old man whispered, "May I ask why it is that you are learning Hungarian?"

"I like languages."

"Do you like Hungarian?"

"Yes."

The old man felt proud. "What do you like about it?"

"Everything," Hadi said. "I can see the people."

"You can?"

"Yes."

The old man did not know what to think. He felt slightly defensive. It took more than sitting in a library in New York to see the people. At the same time, he felt how the language did contain the people too. He trusted Hadi's vision a little more because he could see that he was also not American.

"Where are you from?" he said.

"Iran."

"Maybe some day I will learn your language."

"You're welcome to it."

The librarian saw them then and casually walked over to hear what they were saying. But they assumed she was coming to casually hush them. This was a part of her job that nobody had told her about. People saw her as a warden practically. She had become a librarian because she loved books, not because she enjoyed hushing people.

She decided that she would take a more direct route. The next time he came, she told Hadi about the conversational language program at the Kupferberg Institute.

"Maybe there is somebody for you to practice Hungarian with," she said.

"I hadn't thought of that," Hadi said.

"Do you already have somebody to practice with?"

"No," he said.

She wanted very much to ask him why he was learning it. In her years at the library, she had seen all kinds of people with all kinds of interests. Nothing surprised her anymore. But a language was something you learned in order to speak it with someone. It would just be lonely to learn it and hold it by yourself.

"Well, you should look into the institute."

"Thank you."

Hadi came in most evenings over the next few weeks. He was getting better. He could understand simple sentences. He saw what the people of Hungary had been trying to do. They had been trying to live. They were not so different from him in that sense.

Maybe he would go there some day. He was a photographer, and his work had once taken him around the world. In Argentina he had married a woman and brought her to New York. They'd had a son. When he was five, she had gone back to Argentina and taken the boy with her.

It was life. As he learned the Hungarian language, he felt like it wasn't unheard of. It wasn't so crazy that it couldn't be put into words. The language was ready for him. He felt glad to know that there was a place where his story would not come as a surprise.

He knew it was true for the places whose languages he already spoke, but it was something about the discovery of it. It brought other discoveries along the way.

Little by little he began to see it in the life around him in New York. People were all right. They were not as quick and lively as they could be, but they hadn't forgotten about quickness and liveliness. All a language could do was give them the words. They had to do the rest.

The librarian, whose name was Alice Denman, still wondered about Hadi. He didn't seem like the people who came in and asked her about things that made her feel sorry for them. You saw a lot as a librarian. You saw people's secret hearts, the thing they didn't show anybody out in the world. It gave her a different view of them out in the world. They acted like they had things figured out, like there weren't a million things they wanted to know. But she had never seen anybody wanting to learn a language they couldn't speak with anybody. That one confounded her. She didn't care about making stories anymore. She wanted to know.

There had to be somebody he was learning it for. She felt sorry for herself somehow when she thought of him sitting and learning Hungarian. Life was hard enough, Alice Denman thought, without a language inside you that couldn't come out.

So one evening she asked him again if he had gone to the language institute.

"No," Hadi said. "I may still do it though."

She suddenly frowned at him. "That's what these books are for, you know. For learning how to speak with other people."

She didn't know herself where her frown came from.

"They help me with speaking," Hadi said. "Just not in Hungarian."

He smiled at her.

This is what happened when people saw you as some kind of warden, Alice Denman thought.

"Don't you want to speak it with somebody?" she said.

"Some day," Hadi said.

He took the books and sat in his usual spot, same as where he'd sat and talked with the old Hungarian man. It was funny, he thought, that people thought that the only thing about a language was its use. It had everything—people and what they'd said and what they'd only ever said to themselves and even somehow something unsayable too. Something that stayed unsayable no matter how many languages a man learned.

It was very funny though. It was like saying the only point of reading Shakespeare was to perform it in a play.

 

 


Siamak Vossoughi was born in Tehran and lives in San Francisco. His stories appear in Missouri Review, Glimmer Train, Kenyon Review Online, Chattahoochee Review, and Phoebe. His collection, Better Than War, received a 2014 Flannery O'Connor Award for Short Fiction.

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